It’s been said that the content of a prayer shapes the one who prays it, because we tend to pray what we love, and what we love makes us who we are. And this is not only true of individuals, but of churches too. Like when the early church once prayed,
Now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus. (Acts 4:29–30)
Of all the things they might have prayed — and of all things churches should pray at various times — the fledging church in the early pages of Acts wanted God to give them boldness: “Grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness.”
We as twenty-first-century pastors and churches can learn from this first-century prayer, but to do so, we need to first go back one chapter.
Words Filled with Jesus
The apostles Peter and John were walking to the temple one afternoon when they encountered a lame man. He had been lame from birth. The man was doing what he was always doing: asking for money from people passing by. But on this particular day, something unexpected happened. The man passing by responded, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” (Acts 3:6).
In an instant, the man was healed. He leapt up and began to walk. He entered the temple “walking, leaping, and praising God” (Acts 3:8). The scene drew a crowd, so Peter did what Peter was always doing. He preached. His sermon was full of crystal-clear witness to the person and purpose of Jesus. He is the Holy and Righteous One (verse 14), the Author of Life and the one whom God has raised from the dead (verse 15). Jesus is the reason, the only reason, why the lame man was healed (verse 17).
Then Peter proceeds to show that the Hebrew Scriptures had long foretold Jesus, from Moses in Deuteronomy and God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis, to all the prophets “from Samuel and those who came after him” (Acts 3:24). It has always been about Jesus, and people’s response, now, must unequivocally be to repent (Acts 3:19, 26).
New World Breaking In
These Jewish leaders were “greatly annoyed because [Peter and John] were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (Acts 4:2).
The problem wasn’t only that Peter and John were witnessing to Jesus’s own resurrection, but that they were saying Jesus’s resurrection has led to the inbreaking of the resurrection age. As Alan Thompson writes, “In the context of Acts 3–4, Jesus’s resurrection anticipates the general resurrection at the end of the age and makes available now, for all those who place their faith in him, the blessings of the ‘last days’” (The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus, 79). That, in fact, was what the healing of the lame man was declaring. The new creation had invaded the old.
“Jesus is the climax of all of God’s saving purposes, and we cannot ignore this without eternal consequences.”
In the resurrection of Jesus, everything has changed. He is the climax of all of God’s saving purposes, and we cannot ignore this without eternal consequences. This message ruffled the feathers of the Jewish leaders, and so they arrested Peter and John and put them on trial for all that happened that day.
“By what power or by what name did you do this?” they demanded (Acts 4:7). Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, and again with a crystal-clear witness, says the lame man was healed because of Jesus. Jesus is the Messiah who was crucified and raised, and who was foretold in the Hebrew Scriptures. Specifically, Peter says that Jesus is the stone mentioned in Psalm 118:22, the stone that would be rejected by the builders but then become the cornerstone. The stakes could not be higher. Only in Jesus could one be saved (Acts 4:12).
Outdone by Fishermen
The Jewish leaders were astonished. They could not reconcile Peter and John’s boldness with the fact that they were “uneducated, common men” (Acts 4:13). These were neither teachers nor even pupils, but fishermen. Fishermen. That agitated the Jewish leaders all the more. These unskilled regular Joes, as it were, had been teaching the people! And now they ventured to interpret the Hebrew Scriptures before these skilled Jewish interpreters, telling them who Jesus was, according to the Scriptures, and who they were, according to the Scriptures.
These Jewish leaders saw their “boldness” (Acts 4:13), but this wasn’t merely a reference to their emotional tone. Peter and John’s boldness wasn’t mainly about their zeal or behavior — it was about what they had to say. This kind of boldness is repeatedly connected to speech in Acts, so much so that another way to render “boldness” in many passages would be “to speak freely or openly.” That’s what Peter and John had done. They had spoken clearly, freely, openly, boldly about Jesus from the Hebrew Scriptures — and they had done so under intense intimidation.
As they watched this unfold, even the Jewish leaders began to connect some dots. “They recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). So how did these untrained fishermen learn to interpret the Scriptures like that? How could they speak so confidently about the meaning of Scripture when they had never been taught? Well, because they had been taught — by Jesus himself. They had been with Jesus, and so they were unusually bold. They spoke of Jesus clearly, both of his person and work, on the grounds of what the Scriptures say, even when it might have cost them their lives.
Voices Lifted Together
This is the boldness the church pleads for in Acts 4:29–30.
The Jewish leaders had warned and threatened Peter and John to stop talking about Jesus, but eventually they had to release the men from custody. Peter and John went straight to their friends to report what happened. These friends of Peter and John, the nascent church in Jerusalem, “lifted their voices together to God” (Acts 4:24). Their corporate prayer was as rich with the Old Testament’s witness to Jesus as Peter’s sermon was. They knew the person of Jesus. They knew why he had come. And they knew how unpopular this message would be.
And what did they pray?
They did not pray for articulate positions on the current cultural issues, nor for increased dialogue with those of other faiths, nor for the ability to refute this or that ism, nor for the development of a particularly Christian philosophy or culture (all things we might pray for at certain times in the church). None of these are part of the church’s prayer in Acts 4. Rather, they prayed for boldness to speak the word of God. They asked God to give them the kind of speech Peter and John had modeled — to testify clearly about who Jesus is from the word of God, no matter the cost, as the new creation continues to invade the old.
Do our churches ever pray like this today?
Do we lack a similar heart? A similar perspective? Or both?
And yet our cities need our boldness every bit as much as Jerusalem did in Peter and John’s day. They need the crystal-clear witness of who Jesus is and what he has come to do.
Praying for Revival
What if the church of Jesus Christ, in all her local manifestations, was marked by a singular passion to know Jesus and make him known? This is the true priority of the church in every age and culture.
“The best, most important thing we ever have to say is what we have to say about Jesus.”
We are all about Jesus, and the best, most important thing we ever have to say is what we have to say about him. Our failures to live up to this calling are reminders of our need for revival — of our need to plead with God for boldness. Like the early church, may our heart continually beat to testify to Jesus’s glory and to what he demands of the world. Church, this is who we are. Recover it, as needed, and live it out — even though it’s the last thing our society wants to hear from us.
Our society wants the church to be “helpful” on society’s terms — what J.I. Packer called the “new gospel,” a substitute for the biblical gospel, in his introduction to Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. Whereas the chief aim of the biblical gospel is to teach people to worship God, Packer explains, the concern of the substitute only wants to make people feel better. The subject of the biblical gospel is God and his ways; the subject of the substitute is man and the help God offers him. The market demands the substitute, and those who refuse to cater to it are at the risk of being considered irrelevant or worse. Against that mounting pressure, we should pray that we would speak clearly, freely, openly, boldly about Jesus from the Bible, no matter the cost.
Would this not be the sign of revival? Would God not answer our prayers like he did for that first church?
When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. (Acts 4:31)